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Many bass presets for various synths in the DAW sound relatively high-pitched even when the piano roll contains notes in the first/second octave(s). Since these presets are shipped as part of professional software (e.g. Ableton), and since the notes they are asked to play are in the presumable bass octaves, I'm surprised they sound more like higher-pitched synths (e.g. leads).

So in electronic music, what makes a bass, a bass, if not frequency range?

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    Examples would be nice, since one possible explanation is that these sounds contain both low and mid-range frequencies—but in the abstract, we can only guess. Commented Jan 23 at 1:22
  • @the-baby-is-you in fact, as the middle band is often busy with other melodic and harmonic instruments, it's not uncommon for the bass sounds to include components in the high frequency ranges. Commented Jan 23 at 2:24
  • I agree with@the-baby-is-you that we need examples, but FWIW I've heard some "bass" synth presets that are pitched an octave or two below where they're notated. If played in the lowest octaves, they go subsonic, below my headphones' range.
    – Theodore
    Commented Jan 23 at 14:38

4 Answers 4

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Any electronic instrument can be played in any range, so calling a sound "bass" is mostly "advertising". The author of the patch tells us that "here's a patch that you might want to use as a bass".

But the truth is more complex. There's a whole unwritten convention of which sounds are which. This convention is based on people knowing the history of different genres and understanding what types of bases are "common"

"bass" sounds are:

  • monophonic - this influences the way they are played on keyboard (this comes from the old monosynths like the Mini, MS20 and ARP2600; there are fun little details to learn, like the difference between key priority between the Minimoog and the ARP2600 and why the latter was chosen for the "Thriller" :) )
  • sharp attack, quick release; this is the distinction between a "bass sound" and a "lead sound" (both come from the monosynth times).
  • there will be no vibrato on a bass and no added fifths, sevenths and such (otherwise it's a "stab" or a "pluck")

Those are the "basic" bass patches.

Additional types are:

  • "sustained" basses, the ones without a very sharp attack; used in genres that, well, use them. You could call them "monophonic pads designed to play low", i.e. they often have "interesting things" happening; the types of sounds are different that would be all sorts of wobbling basses (like in dubstep/brostep), Reese bass, and maybe even the techno rumble.
  • sub-bass - is characterized by very defined frequency, sometimes it's close to a pure sine. It only sounds good as a filler for certain frequencies and it only makes sense to use it in the lowest frequencies, if the "main" bass is lacking.

I will once again state the important thing: each of those things is called a "bass" by pure convention and tradition. Someone bought a Minimoog or an ARP2600 and tried to play the bass part, by just looking for a good substitute of a bass guitar. People heard it, liked it and expected more of it. A "classic Minimoog bass" was born. Or a guy created a series of songs with a bunch of detuned square waves beating against each other - bang, it got a name "Reese bass" and people started to program similar sounds. Same with the wobble or the rumble.

So. There's no algorithm for telling whether something is a bass or not, but plenty of prior art and history. No single trick to learn, but rather - if you listen to enough diverse music and patches - you will see the patterns.

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In electronic music, typically only two instruments contribute to the bass frequency range: the kick drum, and the bass. But then, any melodic instrument with a low fundamental can serve as a bass.

It doesn't mean they don't contribute to the other frequency ranges. In fact, they often have very rich spectrum, especially in more aggressively sounding genres. This helps them to be well audible and defined. This also helps the mix to sound well, even if the low frequencies are not well reproduced, e.g. on phone or laptop speakers etc.

Also, as electronic music is a purely artificial creation, no conventions need to be followed. The bass can be the lead melody instrument at the same time. A strong, wide frequency range sound can serve well for such purpose.

Finally, it is common for the preset sounds to be very rich and dominating, perhaps to impress the user, but also to showcase the capabilities of the instrument. If you want to use such preset in your own mix, don't be afraid to cut the frequencies, or tone down parts of the preset, which collide with the other instruments. It might be that the best sound for a particular mix isn't necessarily the most impressively sounding on its own.

One more suggestion regarding browsing instrument presets is to play with the modulation wheel (and other additional modifiers used by the instrument). If the preset creator took care to assign it to some parameters, it may open a whole new dimension of the sound. A bright, aggressively sounding bass sound may turn into a muffled, subsonic murmur – or the other way round.

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  • It sounds like OP is asking if there is a spectral or envelope quality that makes a sound "bass" given that some synths may not drop the "bass" marked sounds (as opposed to the "strings" or "winds" sounds on a synth) in pitch, and that the keyboard will continue to play "bass" sounds on the right side of the keyboard.
    – user121330
    Commented Jan 23 at 18:19
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Quite simply- a bass instrument in a song is one that plays in a low register (low pitches), and a bass patch or preset is one designed for use as a bass instrument in a song. There are "bass" sounds which are predominantly midrange sounds, intended to be used alongside a low frequency bass sound, and there are "bass" sounds which are full-range sounds (e.g. "slap bass" on an electric bass). The common factor is low pitches.

Many bass sounds will also sound good as lead sounds, and vice versa, simply by changing the register in which the notes are played. If it sounds like a lead, try writing/playing lower notes, and use available transposition settings to transpose down an octave or two, if you find it helpful. Synth patches may sound an octave higher or lower than the written MIDI note, and DAWs may number notes differently than scientific pitch. So, even if the MIDI notes say octave 1, you may still need to go lower.

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  • It sounds like OP is asking if there is a spectral or envelope quality that makes a sound "bass" given that some synths may not drop the "bass" marked sounds (as opposed to the "strings" or "winds" sounds on a synth) in pitch, and that the keyboard will continue to play "bass" sounds on the right side of the keyboard.
    – user121330
    Commented Jan 23 at 18:19
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You've stated the "bass presets … sound relatively high-pitched" -- it could be that your studio monitors or headphones cannot reproduce the fundamental pitches you're trying to play. It will sound higher if you are only hearing the harmonics.

The low E on a bass guitar is ~41 Hz, but the -10dB point for JBL 5" studio monitors, for example, is 43Hz. Other organ or synth sounds will be yet lower pitch, and the fundamental tone will not be audible on some speakers. (However, headphones can often produce lower frequencies than speakers.)

The other thing to check would be to make sure your controller is not transposing your input up.

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